Two weeks ago, we looked at what the Football Outsiders stats had to say about the 3-1 Cowboys, two weeks before that we looked at what they said about the 1-1 Cowboys. Today, we'll look at where those same stats see the Cowboys after six weeks, and we'll compare and contrast that with the Week 2 and Week 4 Football Outsiders (FO) metrics.
Overall team efficiency.
FO use a proprietary DVOA rating (which adjusts performance for down and distance situations and more) for their rankings. The data is also adjusted for opponent strength. Good news after six weeks of data: The FO metrics are showing a steady improvement in the overall team efficiency -s you would expect for a team that now stands at 5-1. Unfortunately, that improvement is not happening across all three team units. Here are FO's Team Efficiency Rankings after six weeks:
|Cowboys Overall Team Efficiency (Rank)
We're seeing a steady improvement on offense and defense with these metrics. Before anybody starts complaining about a number 10 overall ranking being waaay to low for the Cowboys, keep in mind that this data is the product of six weeks of play, and not just the average of the last one or two games. As fans, we have the most amazing ability to focus solely on the most recent results and ignore everything previous to that. These stats don't do that.
But putting that minor quibble aside, "the trend is your friend" as most statisticians will tell you, and the trend here is looking very good for the offense and defense.
Where it's not looking so great is on special teams, but we can't really talk about a trend here yet. The Cowboys' special teams unit was consistently ranked as a top ten unit through the first five weeks. In fact, prior to the Seahawks game, the Cowboys were still ranked 10th overall on special teams. The fact that the unit drops ten spots in one week indicates that the FO metrics do not like blocked, muffed or short punts. For now, and with the backdrop of five solid games on special teams, we can hope that the sixth game was an aberration and not the beginning of a trend.
But let's dig a little deeper into the offense and defense.
FO use Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) as a measure to rank offensive skill position players. DYAR gives the value of a player's performance compared to a replacement level player at the same position, adjusts it for the game situation and opponent, and then translates that into a yardage number. Here's how the offensive skill position players have fared over the last two weeks:
|Yards Above Replacement, Offense, through Week 6, 2014|
|Player||POS||DYAR||Week 6 Rank||Week 4 Rank||Week 2 Rank||wk 6 to wk 4|
||- -||- -||- -|
||- -||- -|
||- -||- -||- -|
|*Did not meet min.attempts (48) or receptions (24) to qualify. Rank shows where player would rank based on DYAR|
DeMarco Murray continues to show remarkable consistency, not only in collecting 100-yard games like others collect beer caps, but in staying tops in FOs rankings over six weeks. Most other players improved as well over the period. Jason Witten is ranked fairly low because the FO metrics are based on receiving yards, not blocking performance, and Witten's numbers as a receiver are clearly down.
A big part of the overall offensive rank is the O-line. FO like the run-blocking performance of the unit, but are less impressed by the unit's performance in pass protection.
|Offensive Line (Rank)
|Run Blocking||Pass Protection|
The recent accolades for the Cowboys' O-line are not showing up here as much as one might have hoped, but again, the data here covers all six weeks, and not just the highlight reel runs from Sunday's game.
The good news? The Cowboys are improving in pass protection. Over the first four games, the Cowboys had given up eight sacks for an adjusted sack rate of 7.3% (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent), which ranked 26th in the league. Over the last two games, they've allowed just two sacks, improving their adjusted sack rate to 19th overall.
What many expected to be the worst defense in the history of the NFL is better than half the defenses in the league, at least according to the FO metrics.
|Overall Cowboys Defense (Rank)
What's perhaps most shocking about this development, at least for me, is how the pass defense has come together in recent weeks. I have long maintained that for the Cowboys to improve as a team, their top priority would have to be about improving the passer rating differential. And that is exactly what we're seeing right now. Here are the passer ratings for the Cowboys and their opponents over the first six games:
|Passer Rating Differential, 2014
For a defense that just last year regularly made third-string quarterbacks look like demi-gods, this is quite a remarkable achievement. Look at those numbers closely, and you'll see that the Cowboys held their opponents to a passer rating below 70 in three games so far this season. The last time they had more games with a defensive passer rating below 70 was in 2007, with seven games. Here's how those sub-70 games have accumulated over the years:
2007: 7 | 2008: 1 | 2009: 3 | 2010: 2 | 2011: 3 | 2012: 3 | 2013: 2
When we looked at passer rating differential (PRD) earlier this year, we saw that it correlated more strongly with wins than any other stat outside of Points Differential - better than ANY/A Differential, better than NY/A Differential, much better than Y/A Differential or Turnover Differential. In 2013, that correlation could be expressed with a fairly simple formula: Wins = PRD x 0.16 + 8
Assuming that 2014 will end up being similar to 2013 in terms of PRD correlating with wins, and if we were to plug in the +16.7 PRD into the formula, we'd get a projection for 10.7 wins for 2014. That's not a bad place to be in.
But as welcome as the improved pass defense is, the run defense remains an issue, and that starts up front, where the front seven can't seem to get to the QB, and ranks as one of the worst teams in the league at stopping the run. Here's an overview of some of the stats for defensive front seven.
|Pass Rush||Run Blocking|
|Overall||Power Success||Stuffed||2nd level yards||Open field yards|
Here are the definitions for the metrics used in the table above.
Power Success: Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer.
Stuffed: Opposing runner is stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage
Second level yards: Percentage of rushing between 5 and 10 yards out from the line of scrimmage
Open field yards: Percentage of rushing yards more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage
More traditional volume stats would have you believe the run defense isn't that bad. After all, the Cowboys are only allowing 115 rushing yards per game and are ranked a comfortable 17th in the league in that metric. But when you look at yards per attempt, the Cowboys rank 31st with a 5.1-yard average given up on the ground.
Overall though, this is complaining on a very high level. The Cowboys are 5-1 and playing some pretty good football, even though they still have their share of weaknesses. Most encouraging is the fact that they are improving in many facets of the game. And that's a dynamic that most stats are unable to capture, because averaging out some numbers over six games does not necessarily allow you to understand trends. Which is why looking at these stats on a bi-weekly basis gives you a much better understanding of where this team could be headed.
The Cowboys have a very strong offense and an improving defense with a very specific dynamic of its own: Where last year's defense started out strong and then declined due to a variety of health issues, this year's defense started out weak and is getting better as its getting healthy bodies and better players back.